Even as we continue to assess the impact of COVID-19 in California, we know that the pandemic placed an enormous strain on our local health care system. Early in the pandemic, Governor Newsom gave California a critical tool in our fight against COVID-19 through an emergency order that empowered California’s more than 49,000 registered pharmacists to administer COVID-19 tests, vaccines, and treatments. Pharmacists were critical not only to reducing the spread and impact of infections, but also lessening the overall burden on the health system. Now that California’s emergency order has expired, California lawmakers should codify the authority of pharmacists to test and treat COVID-19 so that we do not lose ground in our fight against this deadly pandemic.
Pharmacists in California are trusted health care providers and visible and accessible parts of their communities. Seven million Californians live in areas without adequate access to health care. However, 91% percent of Californians live within five miles of a pharmacy. Some pharmacies are open 24 hours a day and patients often don’t need an appointment to see a pharmacist. The role and accessibility of pharmacists were critical during COVID-19, particularly for California’s underserved communities, where pharmacists were able to administer doses of life-saving vaccines. California pharmacists were part of the effort to administer more than 88 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, which led to more than 70% of Californians being vaccinated with the primary series.
To encourage more patients to go to pharmacies to be tested and treated for COVID-19, the California Department of Public Health received $158 million in last year’s budget to launch a test-to-treat campaign. The program, which included COVID-19 medicines that are only effective within five days of having symptoms, was a success. As recently as this winter, test-to-treat was highly effective for patients who had contracted COVID-19 variants. Most patients were treated by their local pharmacies.
As we wind down the federal and state policies that bolstered our fight against COVID-19, we may be in danger of creating confusion among patients about when and where they can get screened, vaccinated, and treated for COVID-19. Governor Newsom’s state of emergency expired earlier this year. Congress is currently considering whether to end the national emergency early. And the federal Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act, which includes authority for the pharmacist test-to-treat program, is set to expire in May.
Fortunately, California is currently considering Assembly Bill 1341, which would build on the success of test-to-treat in California and codify the ability of practicing pharmacists to continue to test and treat COVID-19 patients without delay. Consequently, the bill would also help alleviate confusion over where patients can be tested and treated and will help fill any gaps that may be created when the public health emergency expires.
Although news coverage may have moved on from the pandemic, we know that COVID-19 infections and deaths continue to impact California families and our health care system every day. California policies that allow pharmacists to test for, vaccinate against, and treat COVID-19 have been a success. Policymakers can now build on that success, and to protect the gains we have made, by ensuring that Californians can continue to access COVID-related care at their pharmacies. We urge California lawmakers to immediately pass Assembly Bill 1341.
Larry Bottorff is a resident of Orange County and executive director of the Infectious Disease Association of California.